Please as a false friend for German speakers

The word please is very important when you try to be polite, and hence plays a central role in the British culture. However, it is often used incorrectly by German native speakers, and can be classified as a false friend related to the German word “Bitte”.

Please vs. Welcome

My first example is the use of please for “Bitte”, which in German is a possible response to “Danke”. The correct response to “Thank you” in English is “You are welcome” or, shorter, “Welcome”. Hence, the following snippet from a German conversation between Peter and Paul,

Peter: “Vielen Dank für deine Hilfe.”
Paul: “Bitte.”

is translated into English as

Peter: “Thank you for your help.”
Paul: “You are welcome.”

However, Paul should not reply with “Please”. On the other hand, “Please” is of course correct when asking for something. Hence, “Bitte hilf mir” is translated as “Please help me”. The fact that “please” is sometimes but not always the correct translation of “Bitte” makes it a false friend.

Please vs. Excuse me/Sorry/Pardon

In German, the expression “Bitte?” or “Wie Bitte?” is used when you have missed or not quite understood something that was just said. Some correct English translations (there are many more) are “Sorry?”, “Excuse me?”, and “Pardon?”. However, “Please?” is not correct, and will probably cause confusion when talking to native English speakers.

 

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